Bewildering Stories

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The Covered Bridge

Byron Starr

When one thinks of a supernatural location one normally thinks of a tall, brooding manor perpetually encircled by forked tongues of lightning and topped of with a crown of vultures leering from the rooftop like gargoyles. Another popular location that tends to jump to mind is a dark weed-choked cemeteries encircled by a tall wrought iron fence and filled with tall, strangely wicked-looking statues of Jesus and the Blessed Virgin. Other examples that readily present themselves to the imagination are, dark intercontinental passenger trains, empty western ghost-towns, twisted amusement parks filled with psychotic clown faces, and long-hidden Indian burial mounds, just to name a few.

However, one would rarely think of a simple wooden bridge as a supernatural location. Popular belief seems to promote the idea that something bad has to take place at a site for that location to become haunted but a bridge is nothing but a simple passage that spans a barrier - normally a body of water - to connect two otherwise unconnected areas. While a bridge may often be passed over on the way to an occurrence, occurrences seldom occur at the bridge itself. So why should one be suspect a supernatural haunting? More especially, no person would ever suspect a quant covered bridge across a quiet brook in an idyllic Pennsylvania forest as a place of terrible evil, but my grandfather once told of such a place.

* * *

The old covered bridge didn't have an unusual background. It was built just before the Civil War to connect Fairhaven and Westbrook, a pair of small towns in Northwestern Pennsylvania. From the beginning the bridge developed a strange reputation. Animals tended to be wary of the bridge; horses always shied away, sometimes flat refusing to cross over. People would swear they heard strange singing or chanting when they were crossing the bridge, especially at night. And every now and then a person crossing the bridge would swear they caught a glimpse of something out of the corner of their eye, but when they turned, it was gone. Although nothing major ever happened at the bridge, over time these small oddities gave the bridge a mysterious reputation among the superstitious folk of the area.

My grandfather was born and raised in Fairhaven. During the Great Depression, when he was in his early teens, he worked at a bottling factory just outside of Westbrook. Every day he and several other Fairhaven boys, who also worked at the factory, would walk down the path leading to the bridge jostling and laughing as boys that age inevitably do. However, as they came into view of the covered bridge, the boys would begin talking in hushed tones and as they entered the dark shelter, the hushed tones would be replaced by complete silence. The boys would briskly walk across the bridge, chased by the echoes of their own footfalls. Chills would race up their spines and gooseflesh would appear on their arms. On the other side of the bridge, the boys wouldn't slow their pace nor would they resume their chatter until they were well out of sight of the covered bridge. The group of boys crossed the old covered bridge twice a day, six days out of the week, yet their routine never changed; they never grew accustomed to the bridge and dreaded each and every time they crossing over on their way to or from work.

One afternoon, Grandfather and another young boy accidentally overturned a crate, breaking several of the bottles inside. The factory's foreman was furious; making the two boys work late to make up for the cost of the lost bottles. It was well past nightfall before the angry foreman finally let the boys go home and, since the other boy lived in Westbrook, Grandfather found that he would have to make the walk home by himself.

Grandfather told me he wasn't scared at first; he marched down that dark path with all the nave bravado of a young teenager. He was actually looking forward to facing the bridge alone and being able to brag about the experience to his buddies the next morning.

Then as the lights from Westbrook faded away and he was left with only moon and starlight to guide his steps, he began to have second thoughts. By the time the bridge came into sight, Grandfather's heart was filled with dread. He stood staring at the yawning mouth of the covered bridge for quite some time. He began to feel the familiar feeling that he was being watched. A chill ran up his spine that was reinforced by a sudden breeze from behind making him shudder. He began to contemplate returning to Westbrook and sleeping on some of the crates behind the factory.

However, the thoughts of his worried mother and the ridicule he would face from his friends the next morning caused him to take that first step toward the bridge. A few more hesitant steps and he began briskly walking into the bridge's gaping maw. Soon he was swallowed by the bridge and began the short walk to the other end. Scared as he was, Grandfather refused to allow himself to run. He knew that if he ran, he would panic. He listened to his footfalls as he walked through the bridge, counting his footsteps in an effort to take his mind away from his fear. At first he noticed that the echo seemed slightly louder than usual, but he passed this off as his nerves amplifying the sound. The sound continued rapidly increasing in volume until they were unmistakably louder than his actual footfalls.

My grandfather started running. He continued running until he was outside the bridge and probably would have continued running all the way to Fairhaven had he not tripped and fell.

He climbed back to his feet, and dusted himself off. He was still scared and refused to look back at the bridge that was only a few feet behind him, but he had regained enough of his composure to continue his journey at an unhurried walk.

After all, he had passed through the bridge; what else had he to fear. What happened next was odd in the extreme and I would not repeat it if I did not know my grandfather to have been an upstanding man who was in his right mind when he first relayed this story to me several years ago. He hadn't even walked far enough to be out of sight of the bridge when he saw several dozen flickering lights on the path ahead. At first he was relieved. He assumed the lights were the lanterns of the men that had been combing the woods last night for a little girl from Westbrook who had gone missing two days ago. Then he realized and that instead of the sound of searchers calling out the girl's name, all he could hear was strange guttural grunts and snorts. Seeing that the lights were coming his way, Grandfather stepped off the trail and hid himself in the brush. From a vantage point of a few feet from the road, he saw the wicked mob as it passed by.

This mob was made up of strange dark creatures whose appearance was unlike that of anything on this earth. The average height of these black-skinned humanoids appeared to be around five feet, but several were barely over two feet tall and a few were as tall as seven feet. Their matted black hair seemed to be as random as their height, with some of them being hairless, while others were covered in fur not unlike that of a gorilla, but the average somewhere between the two extremes. These creatures walked with a strange gait; it appeared as though their legs were completely double-jointed and would bend forward with just as much ease as they would bend properly backwards. Many of the beasts had legs of different lengths and a few of them even seemed to have more than one knee joint per leg. Their faces were wicked and every bit as twisted as their bodies; with all sporting enlarged mouths filled with rows of jagged teeth, and glassy black staring eyes. Among these bizarre creatures were even stranger specimens. Grandfather plainly remembered seeing one of these beasts with a third arm growing out of his belly. He saw one small creature that had no legs and was moving about by walking on its arms. A pair of Siamese twins, joined at the back, made their way awkwardly down the path. One twisted beast had two mouths, one slightly shifted to the right and the other on the left side of his neck. Yet another freak had a warped face located on the side of its head.

Among this vile torch-lit parade Grandfather saw a blonde-haired little girl. She had to be the little girl from Westbrook. Grandfather could see the fear written on her grimy tear streaked face but there was nothing he could do to help. Her hands were bound before her with thick vines and a similar vine ran from her neck like a leash. A particularly tall creature lead her along the path. His face remained set straight ahead, but, when he felt the slack being taken out of the leash as his captive fell behind, he would give a firm yank on the leash sending the little girl stumbling forward a few steps. The strange procession marched right up to the mouth of the bridge where they stopped and began to gather into a tight group. Their grunts and snarls increased and even began to take on the semblance of some sort of language; they seemed to be chanting. Grandfather then lost sight of the little girl as she was pulled into the center of this tight knot of vile creatures.

It was while this fever-pitched chanting was going on that my grandfather noticed the covered bridge had changed. A rippling, semi-transparent film was covering the mouth of the bridge. It looked like water; as if someone had stopped up the other end of the covered bridge, set it on end and filled it with water, then set it back on its side only to have the water remain inside the bridge instead of pouring out onto the ground.

Grandfather's attention was then drawn back to the knot of creatures by a high-pitched shriek that no doubt came from the little girl. He then heard one of the creatures suddenly become much louder than the rest. The other creatures stopped ceased their chants and began to draw away from the center of the knot making an opening in the mob in which only one of their kind and the little girl were present. The lone beast's chanting grew louder and higher pitched until they were almost nothing but a series of shrieks and screams, yet there still seemed to be an underlying rhythm.

Judging from his actions, Grandfather assumed that this creature was some sort of shaman. He stood six feet tall, slightly above average height for his kind, but certainly not one of the biggest. His right arm was slightly under developed, and his right hand was shriveled up and looked useless. This was not the case with his left arm; long ropy muscles covered his left arm, and long black claws extended from his hand. The creature's face was warped and seemed quite common for his kind save the fact that his left eye was much larger than the right.

After it had made several circles around the frightened little girl, still shrieking and yelling at the top of its voice, the creature suddenly stopped and turned to the little girl. As if on cue, two of the vile black creatures stepped into the circle, grabbed each of the girl's arms, and drew them away from her body. She screamed as the two newcomers tugged her arms in opposite directions and the first creature raised his clawed left hand to begin his terrible work.

My grandfather never could bring himself to tell exactly what happened to the little girl. This same man a couple years later would lose a leg storming the bloody beaches of Tarawa. He would never flinch while telling of the horrors he witnessed in that horrible Pacific battle, yet any attempts enquire as to what happened to the little girl at the bridge would only bring a shake of his head and a quick change of the subject. When the long clawed creature was finished with the little girl, he took a long stick and impaled her severed hand on its end. He then thrust his makeshift staff into the air causing the assembled demonic creatures to let out a gleeful shriek then resume their chanting. The shaman turned to the bridge and walked to the edge of the transparent film. As the creatures gathered closer, one of the smallest of their number accidentally came into contact with the barrier. When he brushed up against the watery barrier he let out a loud shriek and jumped away; his left arm and shoulder seemed to be smoking as he rolled on the ground howling in pain. Paying no mind to the imp's plight, the crowd watched as the shaman poked the staff, hand first, into the barrier. The bloody hand passed through the barrier unharmed but the staff began to sizzle and pop as it was pushed through, and once the shaman's hand began passing through, the creature began shrieking with pain. Still, he managed to get almost half his arm through the barrier before he pulled back. Now his left of his hand was every bit as weathered and ruined as his right.

The gathered creatures howled madly. Suddenly, the entire mob converged on the shaman and began quite literally to tear him limb from limb. My grandfather had caught the importance of the girl's hand passing safely through the barrier, and while the vile mob turned its attention on the failed shaman, he began to make his way through the woods in order to get closer to the bridge. He was only able to get within fifty feet of the bridge's entrance without leaving the shelter of the trees, and he would have to pass near the beasts on his way to the barrier. However, the grisly crowd of horrible creatures was thoroughly occupied. They had ripped the shaman apart and a viscous melee had developed as the creatures fought over portions of his body.

Grandfather watched for several minutes, praying for a miracle. Then one of the creatures managed to grab the shaman's severed head and break away from the mob. The victorious creature ambled awkwardly back down the trail for only a few feet before he was caught from behind and dragged down. However, his actions did draw a considerable portion of the mob from the mouth of the bridge. Sensing that this may well be the miracle he had hoped for, Grandfather made a dash for the bridge.

The creatures were so preoccupied with their struggles for the gory trophies that they failed to see my Grandfather when he burst from the woods. However, when he was within ten feet of the bridge one of the twisted beasts was forcibly ejected from a nearby melee that had developed over one of the less significant pieces of the shaman. This creature fell directly in Grandfather's path. Without breaking stride, Grandfather leaped over the fallen creature and into the strange barrier. However, as soon as his right foot touched the ground, he went down, falling to his hands and knees. Grandfather looked behind him and saw there were no black twisted creatures, nor was there any sign of the strange barrier. Then he glanced down at his left leg. Much to his horror, he found that his leg was visible down to just above his left knee; at that point it seemed to disappear into thin air. He felt something grasping his left ankle. Just like the little girl's severed hand, Grandfather had apparently passed through the barrier unharmed, but as he jumped over the fallen creature it must have grabbed his leg and was now endeavoring to prevent his escape. Grandfather frantically lashed out with his unseen leg, but was unable to dislodge the foul creature. He then began pulling with every muscle in his body; inch by inch he pulled himself forward until he began to hear a strange popping noise from behind him. He glanced back and saw that all but half his foot was now through the invisible barrier. The creature's seemingly disembodied hand was still wrapped around his ankle, but something was happening to the hand. Grandfather noticed that it was blistering and popping as if it was being burned by an unseen flame.

Finally, the creature apparently had enough and released its grip. Grandfather regained his footing and ran. He continued to run without hazarding a single glance over his shoulder until he was all the way back to Westbrook.

That night he lay huddled behind a row of crates in the rear of the factory. The next morning, Grandfather remained hidden as most of the factory workers arrived for work. He didn't come out until he saw his friends arriving. He then proceeded to tell them what had happened. At first his tale was met with disbelief and no small amount of laughter and ridicule, but they could tell by the look in Grandfather's eyes that he was quite serious. They had all felt the strange eyes that seemed to be glaring at them as they crossed the bridge; they had all heard the strange echo of their footsteps at one time or another; they knew that there was definitely something strange about the covered bridge.

The laughter fell away, as did the disbelief. The boys decided that something had to be done.

* * *

Late that night the boys gathered at the bridge, each of them carrying a lantern. While the others looked on, two of the boys then doused the bridge with oil. Once they were clear, Grandfather stepped forward and tossed his lantern into the covered bridge where it burst into flames on the bridge's floor. The other boys followed suit, until the bridge was lit in several places.

As the doomed bridge went up in flames, Grandfather heard faint chanting coming from the crackling flames. He could tell be the fearful expressions on his friends' faces that they heard something too, but only Grandfather understood what it was they were hearing. As the tongues of flame licked above the treetops, the chanting grew louder until it actually echoed through the woods. Troubled glances were exchanged among the boys. Grandfather began to worry that, despite their efforts, the horrible creatures would somehow manage to break through the barrier before the bridge was destroyed. However, just as the chanting seemed to reach a crescendo, the bridge's roof caved in and the sudden additional weight on the floor caused the entire bridge to collapse into the stream below. With their work done, the boys returned to their homes in Fairhaven. The boys slept restlessly, fearful that of what might happen should their parents find out that they burned the old covered bridge. But no punishment was forthcoming. Grandfather told me that the majority of the residents of both towns probably realized what had happened. A few of the boy's parents had awaked to find their son had inexplicably gone out that night and there is little doubt that the parents noticed the disappearance of the lanterns and oil. However, nothing was said of the incident. The community was willing to sweep the ordeal under the rug without any inquiry as to who destroyed the link between the two towns. They were just happy that the bridge was gone.

Copyright 2002 by Byron Starr and Bewildering Stories.